Cheryl Chin, of Jamaica Kitchen, was raised with four siblings in Kingston, Jamaica. Their father told them: "You're all going to America and you're all going to college." Which they did. "When I say I have a master's degree, people are like, 'What?'" Chin says, seeming to relish the notion. She has been running Jamaica Kitchen since 1986, and dispenses stories and opinions about Jamaican and Chinese-Jamaican culture, politics, and food as fluidly as she passes out spicy beef patties. In other words, limiting Ms. Chin to five questions is like asking Tiger to shoot just three holes. But we managed.
1. What's your favorite dish at Jamaica Kitchen?
Curry oxtail. I don't think anyone else has it on the menu. It started out as a mistake. Somebody put some of the oxtail in with the curry goat, because they come from the same company. It was too late to do anything about it, so it went out. Most people didn't really realize it, but some people noticed — and they liked it. And so we just kept making it by itself, and it's very popular.
2. What do you miss most about Jamaica?
I came here in 1980, and for the first few years I was dying to go home. But after a while, there were so many Jamaicans here, and so many come to Jamaica Kitchen, that it feels like home. What I miss most are certain native fruits, like the Otaheite apple — in Spanish it's manzana de agua, or water apple. You can't get it here. There's a different type of pineapple called sugar loaf. You can't get some of the strains of mango that are only native to the Caribbean. And the tangerines down there are huge.
3. The Food Network came to Jamaica Kitchen to film an episode of Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives [to be aired in late August]. What was that like?
Guy was nice, and the production people were really nice as well. I just wish we had been given more of a headsup. I hadn't heard from the producers for weeks, so I didn't think they were coming. Then I get a call on Tuesday night to tell me they'll be here Thursday at 6:30 a.m. They put up all of these lights and it was so hot! Guy would have someone come and powder his face, but the rest of us were dying. When the camera wasn't on, you'd be wiping your face. And we'd never been on TV before; we didn't know what to say. And everybody just looked at everybody else, wondering, What are we supposed to do? So the producer was like, "We're not getting anywhere here. Somebody's got to speak!"
4. Do you feel out of place on a show called Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives?
A customer of ours came in, a little old Jamaican lady, and in a Jamaican/old-English accent said to Guy: "Oh, I watch your show all the time." He said, "Thank you very much." And she said, "But this is not a diner, and it is not a drive-in, and it is certainly not a dive!" He laughed and said, "A little bit of all three I guess."
5. What foods did your chefs cook for the cameras?
I think there were five or six dishes we had to make from scratch — a couple of Jamaican-Chinese and the rest Jamaican. And we had to do everything three or four times each. Like our curry goat and oxtail we make in 30-pound increments, and it takes three hours. We went through 120 pounds of oxtail and 120 pounds of goat over two days. It kind of held up production. And Guy tried our superspicy beef patty — the four-red-dot one. It nearly killed him. He went "Ooh! Ooh!" I gave him a bottle of water.